[words and photograph Mark Eveleigh]
I am on my hands and knees on the jungle floor trying to blend in with dozens of white-nosed coatis. All around me the undergrowth is crunching and rustling as the animals bustle around looking for food. Coatis are something like a cross between a fox and a particularly cute anteater…but with teeth that can finish a dog in one bite. Above me, still more coatis swing from stands of wild banana.
I push myself deeper into the bushes that line the path. I can feel my heart hammering and hear the blood pumping in my ears.
It is not the coatis that have got me so excited though. They are not normally aggressive. Not unless, like these, they have young to protect. But my guides are sure that something much bigger, and infinitely more intimidating, is stalking them.
I have trekked into Corcovado National Park – on Costa Rica’s remote and beautiful Osa Peninsula – with two of the most experienced jaguar specialists in the world. Aida Bustamente and Ricardo Moreno have spent much of the last decade combing the jungle in pursuit of Central America’s super-predator. In the last few hours we have followed the spoor of big cats in such circles that we are no longer quite sure who is following whom. We have seen more than enough coatis and peccaries, and even a tapir, to know that this area is loaded with an abundance of prey for both the jaguars and the park’s large population of pumas. My guides are now convinced that somewhere around us in the undergrowth the world’s most powerful and intelligent big cat is poised for the attack.
It is said that the jaguar got its name from an old Mayan phrase that meant ‘the beast that kills with one leap’. I was painfully aware however that it is not the ‘leap’ that kills, but the single crunching bite that crushes the back of the skull.
The mighty jaguar easily outweighs, out-hunts and out-thinks the African leopard. For its size it is a more formidable killer than the Bengal tiger and it has stronger jaws than a lion (stronger, in fact, than any other land mammal apart from the hyena). Like the leopard and the tiger it specialises in killing relatively large prey in thick forest, and so it must kill almost instantly to avoid being injured during its victim’s death struggles.
As I crouched on the jungle floor it crossed my mind (for the umpteenth time) what pathetically easy prey an unarmed man would make for Latin America’s super-predator. But unlike African and Asian leopards there has never been a recorded case of a jaguar turning into a certified man-eater. Many Costa Rican people believe that any jaguar that kills a horse will sooner or later develop a taste for man but there have been many reports of injured or aged jaguars that it appeared would rather starve than kill a human. Throughout recorded history there have been less than a handful of documented attacks on humans.
I remembered the tales that an old Costa Rican jungle-man had told me. Our interview was memorable primarily because, throughout it, Olman Fernandez continued to shave his back with an over-sized bush-knife. This made it hard to concentrate but, as I recalled, the ex-hunter spent several years working as a gold panner in the jungle.
“Our camps were visited almost every night by jaguars,” Olman remembers, “but neither I nor any of the others were ever ‘molested’ by the cats. There was no market for jaguar skins in the area then so none of us ever considered wasting a precious bullet that was needed for meat.”
Despite the fact that attacks are almost unheard of, el tigre, as the jaguar is called locally, is still feared by many country people here. Olman explained that the jaguar is an expert at recognising when people are afraid of him: “If el tigre sees a group of people walking along a jungle track it will often follow them out of curiosity,” he told me, as he shaved another fine layer of furze off his shoulder, “but it will always walk exactly in the footprints of the man who is most frightened. Perhaps it does it out of mischief, just to worry him more.”
I knew that a jaguar attack was a virtual impossibility but Aida and Ric had racked up countless hours trekking through big cat country of Osa Peninsula. Out of the three of us there was little doubt who was the most nervous.
Aida Bustamente has spent the last few years on the trail of one of the most elusive creatures in the world and Ric Moreno admits that in 13 years studying jaguar in remote forest everywhere from Panama to Guatemala, he has never caught sight of a single wild specimen. The only effective way to get sightings of jaguars in the wild is with camera traps, and Aida’s Osa Peninsula study is the most intensive camera trap study that has ever been undertaken anywhere in the world. She and Ric set up 134 camera traps in a 100-square-kilometre study area. In this area they photographed 24 different ocelots and 22 pumas – but only four jaguars. Very little is known about the habits of wild jaguars but Aida’s study has already shed light on the territories, habitat, abundance, populations and threats to jaguars on the Osa Peninsula.
Six of the world’s 40 wild cat species are found in Costa Rica. All these local species (jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi, margay and oncilla) are officially listed as endangered.
Poaching in Corcovado National Park itself is still an on-going problem and local people tell stories of standoffs between the park rangers and heavily armed hunters. The hunting is primarily for bush-meat but as the peccaries, red brocket deer and tapir are being depleted so the big cats are being forced out into the buffer zone and into conflict with the ranchers.
Aida and Ric’s study area is a semi-protected buffer zone on the border of the park and much of their work revolves around establishing good relations with local people and ranchers and, more ecently, in distributing compensation for slaughtered livestock.
“In one case,” Aida says, “we compensated a single farmer for 11 sheep and three pigs that were killed by a single puma. But it is worth it if we are going to convince farmers that a shoot-on-sight policy on the cats is not the answer.”
Old ways die hard in this jungle region though and many cattle-farmers are still very ready to shoot jaguars on-sight.
“It is easily done,” my old knife-wielding friend Olman told me. “The jaguar will only feed on a cow that it has killed itself, so you can be sure that the cat was the killer. Then it will almost always come back to feed on two or three consecutive nights so you can stake out the kill…or you can use hunting dogs to tree the jaguar and then just shoot it out of the tree.”
Even in the old days Olman maintains that the cats were killed solely to protect the cattle. The meat was considered inedible and as far as he knows there was no market for skins. The teeth and claws were sometimes used to make necklaces and charms but the problems of getting the skins from this remote Pacific Coast peninsula to a trader in San Jose would have made the trade barely worth the trouble.
These days Osa Peninsula is better connected with the outside world. A boat runs several times a day from the port town of Golfito and the road to the mainland is passable in all but the worst of the rainy season. And it seems that the bad old days for the jaguar might just be upon us. Aida and Ric’s contacts among local people (and even among ‘sympathetic’ poachers) tell them that nine jaguars have been killed in Osa in less than two years. Most are still shot primarily as livestock killers but there is once again a growing demand for skins that – with the right connections – can be sold to gringos for around USD2,500. Tourism, in the form of luxury eco-lodges and upscale jungle retreats, is the source of almost all the Osa’s revenue and this threat to its most charismatic animal could spell real disaster not only for the cats but also for the future of this unique little Central American paradise.
There is no doubt that there is still an international market for wild cat pelts in other parts of Latin America. In Panama’s San Blas Islands I met a Kuna hunter who estimated that he had killed over 100 ocelots and more than 20 jaguars. As he posed with a photo of one of his latest victims he told me that he typically sold ocelot skins for just USD80. Another hunter told me that he too had shot several jaguars primarily for the meat, which he said was ‘delicious’. The Kuna people might very likely be the only people in the world to eat the meat of big cats.
“The only time we will avoid the meat of a jaguar,” the hunter said, “is if the cat was shot close to a cemetery.”
The Kuna put woven star-shaped mats on the new graves of their loved ones. The mats are said to resemble the footprints of a jaguar. As one Kuna man told me: “the jaguar will see the footprints and think that another cat has already come to eat the body. So they will go away.”
As I crouched in the jungle undergrowth – waiting for the attack that never came – it crossed my mind that a great many of the big cat attacks in other regions have been cases of mistaken identity. More often than not the attack seems to come when a squatting human is doing a passable imitation of a monkey or another prey animal.
Hunkered down on the rainforest floor surrounded by snuffling coatis I wondered how I must appear to a colour-blind predator and realised that I was probably doing a very good impression of an overweight and particularly succulent howler monkey. After a long day sweating in the jungle humidity I probably smelled worse than a howler monkey.
And since jaguars are said to be fastidious feeders it might be that I was safe enough after all.
This article was written for CNN Traveller magazine.